Could Anthony Porter be guilty after all?
  • Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times Media
  • Could Anthony Porter be guilty after all?

The abolition of the death penalty in Illinois is a story that goes back to the moment a bewildered governor, George Ryan, watching TV at home in 1999, saw Anthony Porter released from prison into the arms of a Medill professor and a handful of students. Ryan said to his wife, “How the hell does that happen? How does an innocent man sit on death row for 15 years and get no relief?”

The lead story in Friday’s Tribune reports that the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office is close to wrapping up an investigation into whether Porter was guilty after all of the double murder in 1982 that put him on death row. Porter’s conviction was overturned after a man named Alstory Simon confessed, but Simon has repudiated that confession, and a couple of aggressive, high-profile attorneys, Terry Ekl and James Sotos, are leading Simon’s charge. Last year they persuaded state’s attorney Anita Alvarez to take another look at the Porter-Simon case.

At stake are Simon’s freedom, of course, and Porter’s public image as the innocent victim of a vile prosecution; but also at stake are the untarnished portion of Ryan’s legacy as governor, and David Protess’s legacy as a Medill teacher whose Innocence Project taught idealistic journalism students to fearlessly right old wrongs.

Steve Mills’s Tribune story breaks fresh ground by interviewing Simon’s old lawyer, Jack Rimland, accused by Simon’s champions of selling him down the river. The Tribune‘s Eric Zorn, who’s followed this case, suggested back in 2011 that Ekl, Sotos, and Simon release Rimland from his obligation to remain silent about his former client. Now that that’s happened, Rimland speaks his piece and speaks it pretty well, I’d say.

On the other hand, Protess’s investigator in the Porter-Simon matter, Paul Ciolino, has nothing to say. Ciolino has been accused of tricking Simon into a guilty plea, in part by telling him Protess intended to parlay the Porter saga into a movie deal that would make everyone rich. I asked Ciolino about this three years ago, when he was chattier.

“A fairy tale,” he said.

If Mills’s article intrigues you, I recommend some stories from the Reader archives. To begin with, there’s the piece I wrote last October when Alvarez decided to review the Porter-Simon case (unaccountably, this story overlooked Ekl). There are a couple of long pieces I wrote in May 2011: a column, “Who’s Saying the Innocence Project Sprung a Killer, and Why?” and an accompanying Bleader post, “If He Didn’t Do It, Why Did Alstory Simon Confess?” My main ambition in these pieces wasn’t to come to any conclusions about Porter or Simon; it was to tell the story of William Crawford, a former Tribune investigative reporter who wrote a report of about 100 pages championing Simon’s cause and then hawked it so belligerently he might have cost Simon more friends than he made him. (At one point Crawford e-mailed Medill’s then dean telling him to tell Protess that “I will kick his ass right up through the openings in both his ear.s.” [sic])

Sotos told me then that despite Crawford’s remarkable accomplishment in turning a tangled tale into a riveting narrative, “the level of abrasiveness he brings is counterproductive.”

You can read Crawford’s report here, on a website run by one of Simon’s most aggressive champions, Chicago cop/author Martin Preib.

And then there are Ekl and Sotos themselves, a couple of attorneys not normally identified with the little guy manhandled by the man. (For years Sotos represented police torturer Jon Burge.) In a column last October I passed along nomenclature I thought might be helpful: the “innocence industry” (Protess and company) and the “guilty-no-matter-what-anyone-says camp” (Ekl, Sotos, and company). Much more than Simon and Porter divide these factions. In Illinois, a long list of cases makes us wonder whether the highest legal principle is that everyone’s innocent until proven guilty or guilty until proven innocent, and sometimes not even then. Viewpoints clash.